New theory emerges in decades-old murder of Kauai 4-year-old

Aleisea "Lacey" Woolsey Ruf
Aleisea "Lacey" Woolsey Ruf

**This is Part 1 of our Always Investigating series into the murder of Aleisea “Lacey” Woolsey Ruf. View Part 2 here.**

The murder of a 4-year-old girl on Kauai more than 20 years ago sent shock waves through the community.

Now it’s getting renewed attention. Always Investigating spoke with the family of the young victim, a father who is calling for justice to be fully served after he learned the man behind bars for the crime may not have acted alone.

The destruction of Hurricane Iniki in 1992 put many families on hard times, and some ended up in tents on Kauai’s Anini Beach, including little Aleisea Woolsey Ruf, who went by the name Lacey. They lived among a mix of locals and visitors at the north shore park.

Lacey’s father, Timothy Woolsey, recalls a tragic summer day, July 27, 1993.

“I got one call. I was living up on the other side of the island,” Woolsey said. “The police department called me asking if I had my daughter. I said, ‘No, where’s the mom?’ They said Anini Beach. I told them I’ll be right there. When I came down, the police was just assembling the search party.”

Lacey had wandered off that evening. As dusk grew darker, so did the panic, and the frantic search for the little girl. Authorities and volunteers were empty-handed by nightfall.

“I searched the mountain that night, never found nothing. Never had the feeling,” Woolsey said.

Up with the sun, the search party resumed by land, sea, and air. Evidence appeared, indicating that she was in the water.

“One of the firemen found one rock with her panties, and that indicated she was in the water, so I took my goggles, fins and everything and I hunt this whole reef up and down and as far as I can see that way,” Woolsey said.

“This guy came up to me and told me, ‘Uncle, I like look in this channel, but I scared of the shark,’” Woolsey recalled. “I told him, ‘I never go in this channel yet, if you like go with me, we go,’ so we worked together. We went pretty much in 40 feet of water and I found her on the bottom, lost my air. I came up and I told him she’s down there.

“Being that from 0 to 40 feet, if I went straight 40 feet, I would never make it, so me and my friend we went from zero over each other, like two dolphins, and started working, going deeper and deeper,” he added. “When I saw his fins disappear, I chased him down. He blew his air, he was going to drop her. He looked up, passed her to me, and he went up to get his air. I just came up slowly, threw everything away, walked in with her.”

It’s a burden that weighs on him to this day.

“Hard for describe, for your only daughter,” Woolsey said. “Till today, I still live with it. Every time I see one little, blond-haired girl walking around.”

As he cradled Lacey’s lifeless body back to shore, the details of her violent end were just being uttered from the lips of a confessing murderer. Aaron Schonlau, barely 20 years old, was a transient from Colorado. He had been caught aboard a bus bound for the airport that morning after a tipster called police from a payphone near Anini Beach.

In transcripts from the interview at the Hanalei police station, Schonlau told police of his history of mental health issues, that he’d been off lithium and on drugs and alcohol, partying with campers, even Lacey’s mom that evening, that he’d taken a walk down the road to look for his brother and another man not yet back from diving, and it was getting dark.

kauai-police-report-graphic

“She (Lacey) followed me over there,” he said. “In my mind, it seems like it’s telling me, ‘Yeah, do it, do it.’ She was screaming and I had my hand on her face, and that’s when she stopped breathing. Twisted her head. I took her out to the water.”

Throughout the confession, he asked for an attorney, but the transcript shows the Q&A kept going. That confession was not used to prosecute Schonlau’s case, but he confessed again during pretrial detainment – this time to a young cop, Mel Rapozo, who is now Kauai County Council chairman.

“I had not gone in there to do an interview. I just wanted to see the face of someone who would do this to a young girl,” Rapozo told Always Investigating. “I didn’t know what happened up to that point. I wasn’t aware that he’d been interrogated, interviewed.

“When I got to see him, he was in his cell,” Rapozo continued. “We had some sort of connection and he felt like he needed to share what he had done with someone. And as he was going through the graphic details of what he had done, then you see the monster in this young, young kid.”

Schonlau wavered between wanting a trial and taking a plea deal. Schonlau eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

“I just would like to say that I’m sorry for all that is happened,” Schonlau said in court.

His older brother, Todd Schonlau, had called police with that bus tip, and he took the stand in court proceedings.

“I asked him and he said he did a terrible thing, and I was just in shock. I didn’t know what to think,” Todd Schonlau said on the stand. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. This is my brother and I know what he did is terrible, but you know, I want him to know I love him.”

News of the crime spread fast, and a mainland detective wondered if there was a possible connection to a cold-case child murder he was assigned in Colorado, where Schonlau was from. That detective interviewed a camper who had been on Kauai with Schonlau, and statements revealed a deep knowledge of the circumstances. We are not naming this person as he has not been charged in connection with the case.

“I was pretty sure that this suspect had something to do with the actual commission of the crime, whether he was the only participant or not,” said retired Colorado detective Jim Benish. “Even today, I am not convinced there was only one participant. He even said the word ‘I’ a couple times,” which Benish said he likened to a Freudian slip.

Fast forward 19 years to January 2012, when Oregon police responded to a domestic violence call involving that camper as the victim of a punch in the face by a woman he was living with. According to the police report, “(She) said (he) told her that he was there when the murder happened. (She) became upset because she did not believe the little girl had to die.”

She and others also shared the alleged confession with Benish.

“Some of the information I got direct from her, and some of the information I received from her friend. It’s third-hand so you have to take that into consideration when you’re receiving the information,” Benish said, “but it’s still information that only someone who was there would know. He describes the material that he used to weight the body down. He describes not being able to make the body sink and dragging her back out of the water and looking for something heavier to weigh her down with. He describes taking her into deep water so that the fish will get to her and things of that nature.”

Always Investigating asked Lacey’s family, now that you’ve heard this alleged confession exists, does it change how you see the events of that night and day?

“Yes, but hard for explain,” Timothy Woolsey said. “You’re tracking one animal, and man is the hardest animal to track because he can cover his tracks. Being that this animal in jail, but this other animal more smart, now new evidence come to light, you admit to your girlfriend. Hmm.”

Aaron Schonlau
Aaron Schonlau

Aaron Schonlau told police he penetrated Lacey with his fingers when he found himself impotent from intoxication. He said he had another hand on her mouth to keep her quiet. He said she stopped breathing, and he assumed he had accidentally suffocated her. He said he then twisted her neck and placed her body, and a rock atop it, about 50 feet from shore in waist-to-chest-deep water because he didn’t know how to swim.

He did not state other details the coroner found – a brutal rape, black eye, cut lip, multiple other bruises, bites on Lacey’s face and buttocks, and that she was alive when she was placed in the water. An autopsy concluded her cause of death was drowning.

Did he act alone? Did he have an accomplice, whether at the rape at the bridge, or when taking the body to the water or later moving it deeper?

We worked with Roger Strecker, a behavioral and interrogation expert and former HPD investigator who has also worked with the U.S Secret Service and FBI. He is now based in Florida as president and CEO of Ternion Risk Mitigation Group.

We pieced together all available police, court, autopsy, affidavit and witness statements, recreated the timeline, and mapped the scene.

“The big question is who got her from here to here and what was the time element for that?” Strecker said, looking at the map from the shallow near-shore area where Schonlau said he put the body, versus the deep off-shore reef crevice where she was found. “This takes planning, knowledge of the area and knowledge that this area is much deeper.”

How reliable was Schonlau’s account — his own memories? His first confession evolves with the questioning.

The cops asked this of the voices Aaron was hearing: “You think that you carried it out? Did you fulfill the wish of that voice?”

“I must have,” he said.

Other answers did not match the narrative other witnesses had told police, witnesses who were never were called upon again because there had been no trial – witnesses Schonlau was never told existed.

Always Investigating asked Strecker, were there any red flags in how he said what he said that might weigh in to the veracity of his recollection?

“I found it very fragmented and inconsistent,” Strecker said, “and would certainly cause concern on my part if this person was under the influence of narcotics and alcohol.”

We asked Rapozo, who heard Schonlau’s second and later confession used in court: For him to know and recount the extent and the details that he did, would there have been any question whether he was really at the scene doing them?

“No, no question in my mind,” Rapozo said. “By ’93 I had interviewed and interrogated quite a few people, and as far as I was concerned and until today, I have no doubt he was sincere, serious, and honest.”

Strecker also reviewed the transcript of the other camper the Colorado detective interviewed.

“This purported interview with this person really gives me pause, concern that he has information that is vital to a complete and thorough resolution of this case,” Strecker said. “To go 40-50 feet, there needed to really be some aid with equipment, and now you have an interview that discusses diving equipment and diving, and some other first names. Look at the intricate detail in recollection — he had that much depth of knowledge, what is his basis of knowledge? This certainly starts to fill in the puzzle.”

With these questions raised, will authorities take a second look at the case?

We’re asking the questions and will continue our Always Investigating series coming up Thursday on the KHON2 News at 10.

Aaron Schonlau, present day
Aaron Schonlau, present day

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